THE LERNER & LOEWE PHENOMENON

By Emily Altman

How is it possible that none of Lerner & Loewe’s five major musicals—each so far removed by date and distance from the America of its own time—has ever sounded unfashionable or untruthful, corny or clichéd?

It is undisputed that Lerner & Loewe were both fiercely intelligent, exceedingly talented and unafraid of complexity. But the answer more likely lies in whatever mysterious alchemy transformed the team’s differences—in nationality, in age, in life experience—into a rare genius. Classically trained and, at 13, the youngest soloist ever to play with the Berlin Philharmonic, Fritz Loewe nonetheless struggled for years to find work on Broadway after emigrating from Germany. He was also almost 20 years older than Alan Lerner, the privileged New York City-born heir to a clothing fortune, who attended exclusive boarding schools and then went to Harvard where his classmates included Leonard Bernstein and John F. Kennedy.

Loewe said he invented a style of music for each of their shows that would suggest its locale but not actually be authentic in any way except emotionally. Thus, in Brigadoon you can hear, throughout, the signature “open-fifth” chords of late-19th-century Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg— chords that, as Loewe knew, were typical of the songs of Scotland (though Grieg’s own ancestors had left Scotland for Norway more than 200 years before his birth).

For his part, Lerner’s book for Brigadoon struck a chord with contemporary society in 1947. The plot’s focus on Tommy—an American who suddenly doesn’t recognize, or fit into, his own world and asks whether Brigadoon, the Scottish town that wakes up for only one day every hundred years, is preferable to a modern world torn by war—clearly resonated with post-World War II audiences. When, at the end, Tommy returns to Brigadoon and to an earlier, simpler time, his ability to wake the slumbering town solely through the strength of his love for Fiona powerfully affirmed the biblical verse that had been Lerner’s inspiration for the show: “Faith can move mountains.”

Together, they moved mountains. Reviewing the original show in 1947, the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote: “To the growing list of major achievements of the musical stage add one more—Brigadoon. For once, the modest label ‘musical play’ has a precise meaning. For it is impossible to say where the music and dancing leave off and the story begins in the beautifully orchestrated Scotch idyll.”

Three-quarters of a century later, Brigadoon has proved no less powerful. In 2017, describing the show’s most recent New York revival, the Daily News captured its continuing appeal perfectly: the “musical understands that love, blessings and even communities come with conditions. When you give everything, that’s when you get everything.”

Emily Altman is president of the Frederick Loewe Foundation.